Perfect blend of youth and experience

Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid. With more than 10,000 runs each in ODIs, the three will be India's batting mainstays in the World Cup.-AP

The key is to do well in the first stage, where India often struggles to maintain form, so as to enter the second, better suited to India's traditionally spasmodic style of play, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

It's beginning to happen: former cricketers, dubious celebrities, inadequate television anchors, spurious astrologers, febrile bookmakers are all weighing in on how India will do in the World Cup. Curiously, those with axes of discontent have sheathed them, choosing instead to fatten the sacrificial beast of Team India. They are bloating India's chances — that way it's easy to say `I told you so' should India go the distance; easier still to tear the team apart should it fail.

Fortunately, Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell are keeping their heads even if no one else is. They look at the World Cup as a tournament of two parts: the first consisting of the group stage and the Super 8, and the second comprising the knockout stage. The key is to do well in the first stage, where India often struggles to maintain form, so as to enter the second, better suited to India's traditionally spasmodic style of play.

About this time last year, one thought that India had shrugged off that particular spasmodic tradition, that under Dravid and Chappell, the team had emerged as a combination of near interchangeable parts that wasn't dependent unhealthily on specific match winners. Make no mistake, one-day cricket matches are often won on the back of two or three performances: encouragingly for India, these two or three weren't the same every time. There were recurring suspects — Yuvraj, Dhoni, Pathan, Dravid — but others were chipping in. Kaif and Raina, R. P. Singh and Sreesanth, Uthappa and Harbhajan Singh all caught the eye during this phase.

One thought the evolution in philosophy — from Sachin Tendulkar winning matches through Sourav Ganguly's hand-picked young turks showing New India wasn't afraid to Dravid's side of self-aware men seeking challenges — was complete. Then West Indies happened, and things were thrown out of whack. A vibrant side turned dithering. A specific problem — the inability to work the middle overs — had several knock-on effects. The batting lost confidence and form, the fielding stopped reflecting the hard work the support staff was putting in, and the bowling, despite often holding its own in this period, couldn't quite spark the turnaround.

Those caught up in the hype they had helped generate failed to see what Australia's succession of losses has shown: that one-day cricket teams at the top often have little between them. Yes, India was guilty of passages of poor cricket, but at no time was the side the bunch of no-hopers it was made out to be. Sri Lanka's performance in the series here showed just why ascribing causes to wins and losses is so difficult. Jayawardene's side was widely praised as the model of preparation for the World Cup. The same experts who had ripped Tom Moody apart when he presided over the 1-6 drubbing to India, now said there was no finer coach.

Moody himself was sufficiently carried away to note that his team, despite not having its two best bowlers, was looking to sweep the series. That Sri Lanka lost again doesn't discredit Moody; nor does it diminish Sri Lanka's chances of winning the World Cup. It does, however, illustrate how just as you think you've got it figured, cricket finds a way of blindsiding you. It's far too complex to force-fit into patterns. Which is why the most truthful answer to how India will do is `I haven't the foggiest'. The less affected `I don't know' works too.

Barring 2003, recent World Cups have been won by sides that started slow, and worked their way into the tournament before realising they were riding an inexorable, self-sustaining wave. Now, there's no way such a model can be planned and executed; but it does give one a philosophical outlet should India start badly. The selectors have done their bit well: the squad — barring Ramesh Powar, the off-spinner — has the best 15 on offer, the 15 the team management trusts most.

India did itself a favour by winning against the West Indies and Sri Lanka, thus joining England, South Africa and New Zealand as the only teams entering the World Cup victorious. The fielding has been rightly pointed to as a liability. Ganguly's running catch in the Sri Lanka series roved, however, a Dad's Army could be persuaded.

Whether the side can consistently maintain respectable fielding standards is another issue. At least in Yuvraj, India has a fielder that can turn a match. Dravid has spoken of the necessity of being smart with field placements — he will be helped by the fact that the Caribbean is the one place in the world a team can fudge on its fielding. The small outfields privilege the captain who knows his angles; throwing arms have it easier as well.

Players to watch

On the day the squad of 15 was selected, Rahul Dravid asserted that India's performance in the World Cup would depend on how "six or seven" key players did, and how the rest of the group backed them up. Sportstar identifies these six, and throws in a couple of wildcards for good measure.

Yuvraj Singh: Smart money on his being India's MVP. Lefty, languid, lordly, Yuvraj the batsman has stepped it up under Chappell's tutelage. Fearless and excellent under pressure. Has the rare talent to hit boundaries when the field is spread. Though he's improved against spin, a smart captain will bring one on as soon as Yuvraj comes to the crease. A delay might be fatal. Has recovered well from a knee injury — India will hope it's behind him. World-class shot-stopper at point, and one of the best at throwing down either set of stumps. At 25, his time is now.

Rahul Dravid: Best at number five, where he's ensconced among the strokemakers and from where he can either direct chases or rescue compromising positions. Evolved as a one-day batsman after taking up the gloves, and now averages over 40. Excellent 2007 thus far — especially heartening after a middling 2006. Exceptional mental strength and a strong desire to lead by example characterise his captaincy. Also capable of tactical sparkle.

M. S. Dhoni: Invaluable, supremely adaptable. Dhoni's wonderfully homespun technique has acquitted itself well in the range of conditions it's been exposed to. Constantly ticking cricket brain — often overlooked — makes him a formidable package. But, his keeping struggles in slow, low conditions — he's admitted that Sri Lanka and the West Indies have the toughest tracks to keep on.

Sachin Tendulkar: No longer the alpha male. But, as he showed in Malaysia and at home against West Indies, genius does as genius must even if increasingly infrequently. Looked at as a middle-order option — one with the power and creativity Dravid and Chappell require — though the possibility of being reunited with Sourav Ganguly at the top isn't ruled out. Touched rarefied heights in 2003. Can he channel that spirit? Also an option with the ball in the death.

Sourav Ganguly: Version three features an improved work ethic and refurbished technique thankfully not divorced from the inner mongrel. Role involves batting through the innings and imposing himself on any spinner he fancies. Adds a left-handed dimension to the top of the order. With Dravid, Tendulkar and Kumble, the wise head that, at least in theory, knows what to do in a crisis.

Zaheer Khan: Magnificent since his return. A threat at the start, always capable of knocking over the best. Zaheer bowls an excellent yorker at the death though he can go for runs. Dravid will look to bowl him in three spells — one first up, one through the middle as a striker, and finally one in the slog.

Wildcards

Robin Uthappa: Made the squad on the basis of a strong Ranji season and a blowtorch half-century against the West Indies in Chennai. Hits exceptionally well through the line, which might be a liability if the tracks are slow. Hasn't yet shown a forcing, attacking shot through the offside entirely off the back foot, but handles pace well.

Virender Sehwag: It's a measure of how poor Sehwag's recent ODI form has been that he is bumped from key player to wildcard. Always capable of swinging a match on his own, though not if he runs like he did against Sri Lanka.